One of the great impediments on the road to spiritual development is the feeling that I am better than others ~ ‘holier than thou’ as the old saying goes. Most of us have it to one degree or another ~ and if not, then it’s an indication that we are in pretty good spiritual shape.
Oftentimes however, we are prone to succumb to thefeeling of being high and mighty. After all I have knowledge and I’m meditating, while that dumb drunken bum in street is just a low life, etc… etc.
And so having the tendency to criticize others is a part of the package of feeling superior to others. Sometimes people not only diligently observe the faults of other people, but they cling to them as if these faults are some kind of treasure ~ a great storehouse of delicacies to be savoured at every opportunity. Why do they do this? Because it makes them feel superior ~ that they are at the top of the pile. I’m a success, while all those other people with all their faults, they are not as good as me.
Sometimes people get caught up in this way of thinking to such an extent that it becomes a syndrome, a rusted-on part of their nature. I feel superior, so I criticize others, and the more critical I get, the more superior I feel. One action feeds the other. Yoga teachings therefore advise that, if we want to be free from this endless circular rut, we should make an effort to control these tendencies as much as possible.
In the history of Chaitanya Mahaprabhu 500 years ago in India, there were two absolutely abominable persons named Jagai and Madhai. They were the baddest of the bad ~ murderers, rapists, aggressive thieves, cruel standover men ~ the complete list of their violent criminal behaviour went on and on and on.
We don’t have the space to get into all the details here, but it’s described in the Yoga histories, how after spending just a few moments interacting with the great spiritual personalities Chaitanya and Nityananda, these two rogues completely repented all of their previous sinful actions, and were immediately transformed into great spiritual personalities themselves.
There are a few important lessons that we can take away from this incident. First, it can provide great hope and inspiration to anyone who is feeling lost, bad, useless or in some way feeling generally unworthy of spiritual life. Second, it teaches us to always respect everyone, even the lowest of the low, because they too have the inherent potential to become saints.
As Krishna states in the Bhagavad Gita 5:18
‘The humble sage, by virtue of true knowledge, sees with equal (spiritual) vision, a learned and gentle brahmana, a cow, an elephant, a dog, and an outcaste.’
At the time of Jagai and Madhai, many of the people were accustomed to looking down on them, but just a short time after their meeting with Chaitanya and Nityananda however, these same people were now observing their transformed nature with amazement. Nothing is written in stone. People are sometimes increasing and sometimes decreasing in their spiritual development, so it’s not a good policy to cling to our judgements and criticisms of others.
There is a saying often quoted to support the proposition that a person of dubious character cannot be reformed ~ ‘a leopard can’t change its spots’. This is obviously not correct. If it is correct then we are all in serious trouble. The very existence of the path of spiritual development is based on the fact that ‘a leopard can change its spots’.
The story of Jagai and Madhai is an outstanding practical example of this, and teaches us that our judgements/criticisms of others should not be held onto as if they are eternal truths. If we don’t move on, then we are stuck in an unreal place, still looking down on the Jagais and Madhais of the world, when in a sense, they no longer exist ~ their character has been completely reformed.
But they may not have reformed someone might say ~ I still have to look down on them, they’re still bad. Maybe, but do you really want to spend your whole life keeping an ‘inventory’ on these things as one of my friends recently put it? Do we really want to be continually keeping tabs on who is currently good and who is currently bad? We are advised to keep such an inventory on ourselves, but not on others, for a number of reasons. Firstly, if we are aware of our own shortcomings, then the tendency to criticize others won’t be so strong, and so we’ll tend to be more conscientious in our own spiritual practices.
Another downside of holding fast to our criticism of others, is that relationships will suffer. If I am thinking negative thoughts about someone, there’ll be a barrier between us, and I won’t be as naturally friendly to them as I might otherwise be. Yoga teachings therefore advise that we maintain a humble and respectful attitude to everyone.
While these ideals are rightly held up as attitudes that we should try to aspire to, the fact is that we live in a world which is often cruel and unkind ~ so don’t we have to be judgemental of others sometimes? Yes, and in some instances it may even be a matter of life or death. As a practical matter of survival, we have to be aware if someone is about to rip us off or exploit us in some way, and then act accordingly.
Even so, we are advised to try to maintain a humble attitude in all circumstances, always seeing that every living being is a spiritual child of the Divine, inherently having the potential to become spiritually perfected in less than a moment.